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Posts Tagged ‘abstinence’

Fasting is suddenly fashionable, and the ancient Christian tradition of not just abstaining from meat but radically cutting down on food for two days a week (Wednesdays and Fridays) has become the new norm.

It’s the 5:2 diet, of course, but Oliver Burkeman asks how we can apply this ‘fasting and feasting’ philosophy to other areas of life.

It sometimes seems as if every other person you meet is following the Fast Diet, also known as the 5:2 Diet, the eating plan first detailed in a BBC2 documentary last summer and then in a bestselling book, by the journalists Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer. It entails eating very small amounts of food (600 calories for men, 500 for women) on two non-consecutive days of the week, and consuming whatever you like on the other five. [It involves] the crucial psychological insight that extreme self-denial almost never seems to work.

The grander claims made for the 5:2 approach are debatable at best: it’s far from clear that it will stave off ageing, dementia or death. (The best results so far have been confined to mice.) Even Mosley and Spencer admit there’s nothing magic about the 5:2 ratio, or the specific calorie limit for fast days. But because you’re never more than 24 hours away from eating whatever you want, it’s a way of eating less – and of being mindful about what you eat – that people actually stick to. It doesn’t overtax your willpower; nor does it conjure images of a joyless life spent permanently without burgers. “Conscious self-denial,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed.” The Fast Diet has a built-in remedy for that.

Which raises a question: might the 5:2 approach work equally well when it comes to those other bad habits we struggle to change – such as failing to exercise, spending too much time online or constantly worrying or complaining? […]

Why does this approach work when others seem to fail?

The fact that extreme self-denial often doesn’t work, or at least not for long, is one of the oldest truths about human nature: Odysseus, according to the myth, had himself bound to the mast of his ship because he knew he couldn’t resist the sirens by willpower alone. If willpower is a “depletable resource”, as experiments by the psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have suggested, then it’s not hard to see one reason for this: the self-discipline muscle simply becomes exhausted. (In one famous study, students made to resist the temptation of cookies and chocolates had less capacity to persevere at geometry exercises.) […]

There are other reasons a plan such as 5:2 might make habit change easier. It’s simple and therefore easy to remember – but it’s also precise, and therefore easy to follow. (Compare that with the food writerMichael Pollan‘s famous summary of the rules of healthy eating: “Eat food, not too much, mainly plants”. Being simple but not precise, this is hard to implement.) It also introduces a challenging constraint, of the kind of thing likely to provoke creative thinking: if you’re allowed to consume only 500 calories a day, or banned from frittering the evening on the internet, you might come up with some imaginative new recipes, or original new ways to spend your leisure time.

This moderate sort of approach won’t work for everyone, nor for every bad habit: sometimes, going cold turkey is preferable. “I can’t drink a little, child, therefore I never touch it,” Samuel Johnson once explained to the poet Hannah More. “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” (That’s the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy.) But if absolutist bans have never worked for you yet, the 5:2 approach could be worth a try.

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After my talk at St Andrews Catholic Chaplaincy last week we all went to the pub round the corner, and inevitably the conversation turned to the topic of what people could give up for Lent. It goes without saying that Lent is about much more than just ‘giving up something’; but it was interesting to throw around some ideas about what forms of digital fasting and penance could be fruitful over the 40 days of Lent.

Here are the broad categories that came up:

(1) RADICAL DETOX: Just dump it all for the next 40 days. Computers; internet; email; mobile; texting; tweeting; blogging; Facebook; all forms of social media; iPods and mp3 players. Do you include TV in here as well, which is now digital? This is the shock and awe strategy. Total blackout. Everyone said this would be impossible, unrealistic, unwise, not living in the real world, asking for trouble!

(2) SELECTIVE SWITCH-OFF: Choose one form of digital media or communication and let go of that for the whole period of Lent. E.g. No Facebook, or no internet use at all, or no texting. Nearly everyone said this would be impossible, but one or two were open to it.

(3) TARGETED TIME-OUTS: Take all forms of digital media, or choose just one form of digital media, and fast from using them for a pre-determined period. E.g Fridays of Lent; or every day after work, or after 6pm, or after 9pm; or Sundays of Lent. E.g. I need to use the internet at work, but I’ll try not using it in the evenings. E.g. I won’t use Facebook on Fridays, or on Sundays. E.g. one hour a day, perhaps the morning, perhaps the evening, when everything electrical and digital is switched off. E.g. I won’t listen to music on the iPod while travelling but I’ll read instead.

(4) GEOGRAPHICAL SAFE-ZONES: Deciding not to use some or all forms of digital media in certain designated geographical areas; creating ‘safe-zones’, sanctuaries of silence and stillness. E.g. I have enough internet at work, so I don’t need to use it at home. E.g. I’ll use the internet at the desk, but I don’t need to be using it on the mobile constantly. E.g. I switch the phone off for twenty minutes when I sit down to eat at table.

For most people, the third idea of having some kind of digital time-out, on a Friday or a Sunday, will probably be the most realistic – just an hour each week, or an evening or a day, when they are not at the mercy of digital information overload, when they are brave enough to experience being unconnected or just slightly underconnected.

What’s interesting is how much people protest even at the suggestion that one of these options might be possible: the arguments that people throw up, the resistance shown (much of it very rational and reasonable) – it shows how attached we are to this stuff. And just raising the question about how we use digital media, and how they use us, is part of what a prayerful reflection on fasting and penance is meant to cultivate. The important thing is not just to adopt a rule suggested by someone else for the sake of it, but to think of something that could really make a small but significant difference in one’s own life – and see what comes from it.

It’s important to put all the qualifications in here: You don’t take on any of these disciplines because you despise digital media or think they are inherently evil – any more than you fast from food or abstain from meat or chocolate or alcohol because you think these things are bad in themselves.

On the contrary, you recognise that these are good things that can be used for good purposes; but you also recognise that you can become over-attached to them, that they can become idols or addictions, that they can be occasions for sin as well as for good, that their over-use can dull or extinguish the joy they are meant to give, that letting go for a little while can deepen your appreciation for them, that having a discipline and a restriction in place can sometimes make you more free in your approach to something, that there are other good things in life that get crowded out and forgotten in the digital onslaught, that digital noise can make stillness, silence, prayer and even ordinary relationships more difficult, that you are so locked in you don’t know who you really are any more, that it’s important to share in the digital poverty that many people experience as a normal part of life, etc.

All I’m saying is: you don’t need to be anti-digital technology to recognise that there is some value in stepping back and letting go for a while each year – and this is one part of the meaning of fasting and penance for Catholics each Lent.

I like these terms: iFasting, iPenance, and iLent. Of course I thought I invented them, but so far on Google I’ve managed to find this iLent site. I’m still hoping to copyright the first two terms, but you can shatter my illusion of originality by sharing any previous examples of their use you have come across in the comments below.

Or will I get sued by Apple for even mentioning an iWord?

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Some good news, at last, about HIV and AIDS. A recent press release from UNAIDS (and see the Reuters summary here) said that HIV prevalence among young people has declined by more than 25% in 15 of the 21 countries most affected by AIDS. This is because the number of new HIV infections among young people has declined significantly.

In eight countries—Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—significant HIV prevalence declines have been accompanied by positive changes in sexual behaviour among young people.

For example, in Kenya there was a 60% decline in HIV prevalence between 2000 and 2005. HIV prevalence dropped from 14.2% to 5.4% in urban areas and from 9.2% to 3.6% in rural areas in the same period. Similarly in Ethiopia there was a 47% reduction in HIV prevalence among pregnant young women in urban areas and a 29% change in rural areas.

What’s striking is that the first two factors cited as playing a part in this reduction are (i) waiting longer before young people first have sex and (ii) reducing the number of sexual partners.

Young people in 13 countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Malawi, are waiting longer before they become sexually active. Young people were also having fewer multiple partners in 13 countries. And condom use by young people during last sex act increased in 13 countries.

Yes, condoms are mentioned. But the report recognises that significant changes have come about in part through a transformation of patterns of sexual behaviour among young people. This is UNAIDS reporting, not the Vatican Press Office. And it’s a reflection of what’s working not just in one or two statistically insignificant areas but in two thirds of those countries most affected by AIDS today.

It’s interesting that the person who uploaded this image to Flickr in May 2006 did so in order to criticise abstinence campaigns because of their illiberal suggestion that people might want to rethink their patterns of sexual behaviour. This is part of the image caption:

AIDS campaigns funded by churches and/or the US government tend to emphasize abstinence and fidelity to one’s spouse instead of describing options available to persons who choose to have sex outside of marriage.

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